“Maui scientific community ‘still in shock’ after deadly Lahaina wildfire.”

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14th August, 2023
Today’s Protostar is Bingxin Zhao, who is uncovering hidden connections between organs. But first, catch up on the latest science news, including how climate change may destroy the Thar Desert and how gene regulation may control lifespan.
Maui scientific community ‘still in shock’
Lahaina burning
“The loss, of not just the town, but the harbor and the facilities that everybody depended on… we’re still figuring out what that’s really going to mean.” —Marc Lammers, Maui-based marine mammal biologist. MATTHEW THAYER/THE MAUI NEWS VIA AP IMAGES
The harbor in Lahaina, Maui, was a bustling center of marine research, where community members shared vessels and expertise while studying the vast biodiversity that teemed in the sparkling waters around their island. Then, last week, during a spate of wildfires over multiple days, the historic city of Lahaina was razed by flames. In a matter of hours, the harbor went with it; Supplies, infrastructure, and an unknown number of research vessels were destroyed.

Maui’s community of marine biologists weren’t the only scientists devastated by last week’s blazes. Elsewhere on the island, growing houses teeming with critically endangered plants were torn apart by raging winds. Fire creeped closer to animal conservation centers and research offices. And Hawai’i’s ever-shrinking swaths of native dry forests continued to shrink.

Last week, climate change, drought, unusually high winds, and high temperatures combined with devastating effects for many of the research projects operating on the island of Maui. But those affected also know that, if things don’t change, this won’t be the last time that the island is ablaze.

Of mice and elephants: Connecting epigenetics to lifespan
The average mouse lives for two years; the average elephant, 70. And they’re not even the extremes when it comes to mammal lifespans. Why do some live so long, while others’ time is vanishingly short? The answer may lie in their genes, or more specifically, the way their genes are activated or silenced, as Science reported in 2021. Now, new maps of methylation marks—epigenetic chemical tags on DNA which alter gene expression—are hinting at genomic regions that may underlie differences in lifespan.

Instead of relying on traditional methods for mapping methylations, the researchers behind the new study—published in the most recent issue of Science—employed microarrays, which look for a specific subset of potential methylations. That allowed them to examine methylations in almost 350 different mammal species, comparing as many as 70 different tissues per species. Analyses of the substantial dataset revealed areas of the genome likely tied to lifespan.

Alex de Mendoza notes in a related Perspective that while there’s much still to be done, the study opens the door for other researchers: “now there is a robust high-throughput DNA-based marker to molecularly assess traits across mammals,” de Mendoza writes. “Therefore, experimental treatments aimed at modifying aging… can now be tested in nontraditional model species with distinct metabolic adaptations, and epigenetic aging can be measured.”

The ‘Great Indian Desert’ may disappear because of climate change
Climate scientists have often said that as the globe warms, the wet will get wetter and the dry will get drier. But the opposite might be true for the most densely populated desert in the world: The Thar Desert in northwest India may turn green within the century, according to a modeling study published last week in Earth’s Future—the consequences of which could be devastating.

The authors pulled together rainfall and temperature data to see how rains changed over the last 50 years and forecast changes over the next century. They found rains have already shifted west into arid areas. And their research predicts that a warming Indian Ocean will move the monsoon 500 kilometers further west—putting it right on top of the desert—by 2100.

Experts not involved in the research say the study also highlights the large human impacts of regional climate shifts and shows the importance of uncovering nuances in climate models. With the region still recovering from last year’s devastating floods, the authors urge policymakers to initiate adaptation efforts to prepare for more desert rain to come.

Bingxing Zhao
Bingxin Zhao
Assistant professor, University of Pennsylvania

Zhao, B et al. Heart-brain connections: Phenotypic and genetic insights from magnetic resonance images. Science 380 (2023). 10.1126/science.abn6598

Bingxin Zhao started as a history major in college. But he also loved statistics, and ultimately, he decided to pursue the math side of his interests for his career. “Statistics and mathematics in general can be very useful tools for understanding medical and biological questions,” he realized.

In 2019, as he was finishing up his Ph.D. in Biostatistics at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he had an idea to look at connections between different organs. Evidence had begun to accumulate that suggested heart and brain health are intrinsically linked; people with atypical heart rhythms are more likely to develop dementia, for instance. Zhao wondered if these correlations could be taken a step further: Could you tell from a brain scan about the health of a person’s heart? Or vice versa: Could an MRI of a person’s heart provide insights into their neurological health?

It would take years to follow through on that vision, but Zhao did it: He and colleagues statistically connected heart and imaging data from 40,000 people for a paper published recently in Science. That revealed previously unknown connections between the two organs—for instance, a link between the thickness of parts of the heart and the size of certain brain regions. The math also linked certain structural features of the heart to neuropsychiatric conditions like schizophrenia. These brain-heart links were also connected to genomic data, which revealed shared gene regions associated with connected diseases—information which could help uncover the underlying physiological causes. I sat down with Zhao to talk about the work; that conversation is below, edited for brevity.

How did you end up working on this project?
Looking for connections between the heart and brain is intuitive, I feel; the heart and brain are both very important organs. And for a long time, people have felt like there are connections between the heart and the brain. I thought that MRI data could give us some new insights into this very old idea, particularly if we have some joint analyses with genetic data. That was the very rough idea in the beginning.

I had this idea back in 2019. But at that time, I didn’t feel we had the right data to answer this question. Then, there came some new machine learning pipelines for analyzing heart imaging. And I thought, okay, maybe it’s time to explore this. So we used the heart imaging pipelines, and we already had the brain imaging data, so we integrated them to do multi-organ research.

What would you say was your most innovative or surprising finding?
We see these consistent connections between the brain MRI imaging and the heart MRI imaging. It’s the first time we have been able to identify these associations, and we were also able to find some underlying genetic factors that contribute to these connections… and that’s all because of the bigger dataset—because we have the data from a large cohort from the UK Biobank study. The dataset is quite unique, so we were able to see something new.

What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
We’re trying to understand the human body from a more multi-organ perspective. In addition to the heart and the brain, we’re looking at other organs like the kidney. Maybe we can generate some imaging biomarkers from these organs, and we are trying to see whether we are able to get more insights after we try to understand all the organs in the network. Our human body works together; it’s not this organ [working separate from] this organ. So we are trying to understand this complex process by using imaging and also genetics and genomics.

Colorful genes
Researchers edited cells one gene at a time to discover 169 genes involved in the coloration of skin, eyes, and hair.
‘Destructive’ and ‘irreversible’
Israeli scientists decry education policies that they say undermine the country’s research and technology sectors.
Legally unprotected
A bill passed by India’s Parliament undermines the 2002 Biological Diversity Act and its protections for the country’s living things, experts say: “They have spoiled it.”
Theory has to get its act together.
—Aida El-Khadra, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
NEWS  |  10 AUGUST 2023  |  ADRIAN CHO
A more-precise measurement of muon magnetism highlights uncertainties in the standard model of physics.
Last but not least
Friday’s special issue of Science was all about Australia. Have you checked it out? I found David Bowman and Jason Sharples’ Perspective on wildfires especially poignant, given the tragedy unfolding on Maui.
Christie Wilcox, editor, ScienceAdviser

With contributions from Molly Rains and Tanvi Dutta Gupta

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